SALT LAKE CITY – Despite recent revisions, a proposal that would have banned transgender athletes from competing in girls sports in Utah is stalled in a Senate committee at the Legislature and that’s fine with freshman Senator Chris Wilson, R-District 25.
After much study and reflection, Wilson says that he has concerns with House Bill 302, entitled “Preserving Sports for Female Students,” on constitutional, economic and emotional grounds.
As originally proposed by Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-District 53, HB 302 was arguably one of the most hotly debated items on the Legislature’s calendar during the current general session.
In the name of ensuring “fair competition,” the original text of Birkeland’s bill would have required public schools to designate athletic events by the gender of their participants; prohibited students of the “male sex” from participating in sports designated for female students; and obligated the state to take responsibility for any lawsuits arising from the implementation of the law.
The proposal outraged Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Questioning advocates, who insist that transgender persons are free to select their gender regardless of physiology.
Despite impassioned debates in the House, HB 302 eventually collected 18 co-sponsors, including Rep. Mike Petersen, R-District 3. The measure was narrowly endorsed by the House Education Committee in mid-February on an 8-to-6 vote and passed the full House a few days later by a more than 2-to-1 margin.
But Birkeland’s proposal ran into a brick wall in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Feb. 24, where Wilson is a junior member.
By that time, Birkeland had revised her proposal to make it more “inclusive” by allowing transgender youth to play on girls teams except when those teams are engaged in competition with teams from other schools. Despite that change, senators on the committee gave HB 302 the cold shoulder and the proposal now languishes there in limbo.
“HB 302 was not defeated in (the Senate Health and Human Services) committee,” Wilson acknowledges. “The vote to adjourn the meeting grants an opportunity to step away from the emotional intensity (of the issue) for a time, as well as the possibility of resuming additional deliberation of an extremely complex issue.”
In a weekly online report to District 25 constituents, Wilson invited them to listen to the hearings on Birkeland’s proposal with “a heart and mind open to considering both sides of a complex issue and all its potential unintended consequences” at https://le.utah.gov/~2021/bills/static/HB302.html
Wilson said he also has practical concerns about any proposal that could be seen as discriminating against transgender youth.
The first of those, he explains, is that lawsuits challenging the proposed statute on constitutional grounds could result in costly litigation for the state and for taxpayers.
Secondly, enactment of Birkeland’s bill would likely have a negative statewide economic impact as a result of boycotts and the loss of events, tournaments and sponsorships because HB 302 would be contrary to inclusive policies established by athletic associations at every level.
Finally, Wilson said that he cannot ignore the proposal’s possible detrimental effect on vulnerable youth of the LGBTQ community who are at increased risk of suicide.
“Of the 80,000 high school athletes in Utah,” he explains, “there is currently not a single transgender participant. However, in our community of Cache Valley, there have been 13 young people who died by suicide in just the past eight weeks.
“I do not know the particulars (of those tragedies) or if LGBTQ issues were involved. But, regardless of the reasons, this is extremely concerning to me.”
The junior senator admits that the issues surrounding HB 302 are personal to him, as the father of five daughters, four of whom participated in high school sports activities,
“I support the ongoing conversation (about this issue),” Wilson says hopefully, “and legislation that resolves these concerns and appropriately advocates for female athletics.”